Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot, by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, 1996, 308 p.

For years, I’ve been curious about tarot cards; from the perspective of a child of vaguely Protestant upbringing, they had an air of taboo about them—of being bad and wrong—but they also had detailed, complicated, fantastical imagery. I love symbols, and I love fantastical art and I read in fantasy/science-fiction fields, so I inevitably came up against references to tarot or images from tarot again and again. Writers love to throw tarot around; the symbolism’s right there on the surface, easy to use and easy to assign to characters, freighted with the weight of mysticism in a rational-scientific world and paganism in a predominately Christian English-speaking world.

I bought my first deck a few months ago (the Tarot of the Cat People—the art had cats and a retro style heavy in blue that appealed to me), on a roleplaying excuse. I was developing a character who would be a tarot reader, and I had to know something about the cards to write a reader, didn’t I?

Yes, I did; but also, yes, I just wanted to finally get my hands on some tarot cards.

After reading a dime-a-dozen guide on basic tarot symbolism and the symbolism book that came with the deck (many decks can, if you choose to buy a set, come with a symbolism book), I wrote up my character, and then went on to buy four more decks, because I love pictures and comparing interpretations of common symbols.

I also started looking for books on the factual history of tarot—not the mystical histories invented by some practitioners of tarot, but a documented academic history.

I found one in this book.

Unfortunately, it’s rendered nigh on unreadable because that’s exactly what it is: a documented academic history, with no regard for crafting a readable or intuitive narrative through which the reader may follow the development of tarot from an Italian deck of playing cards through to a French cartomantic pastime and fad to a widespread tool of occultism, purported to preserve the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians.

The text follows a generally chronological course, describing major figures in tarot and occult history as they made their contributions (Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, Eliphas Levi, Papus, and others—the timeline ends at the beginning of the 20th century). However, it fails to hold together in its chronology, skipping back and forth between minor figures and major figures in any time period, jumping from using a figure’s occult pseudonyms to his given name and back again, and sidelining into long digression. The entire chapter on Mlle Le Normand could have been summed up in one line: Le Normand made little if any contributions to tarot history. Instead, like the chapters on figures who made substantive contributions, her chapter wanders through a long list of scattered biographical details, bibliographical listings of her works, and dates in her life, to prove, it seems, very thoroughly, that she contributed nothing at all to tarot. While that may be academically sound writing, it left me finishing the chapter with the distinct impression that I had wasted a great deal of time for very little information.

The book as a whole runs in the same fashion. Between flipping back and forth between pages and sections, trying to remember which name went with which practitioner and why an occult publisher mentioned much earlier was being brought up again now and if certain events happened before, after, or at the same time as other events and who succeeded who in the legacy of hermetic knowledge and which press put out which deck with which ordering of the trumps when, I gave up. Not that I gave up on reading the book—I held on to the end—but I gave up on making sense of it. I sifted what I could from the data being thrown at me and surfed through the last few pages with relief.

Good. Done. Back to the library.

I learned that the tarot originated in Italy as playing cards and were adopted in France as divination tools in the 1700s (when the French were very into diversions, it seems), that Court de Gebelin introduced the idea that the tarot preserved the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians as “the book of Thoth,” that Etteilla developed a full-blown cartomantic reading system based on this assumption, that Eliphas Levi overturned Etteilla’s system and associated the cards with the Cabala and astronomy, and that Papus brought cartomancy with tarot into the latter half of the 19th century—after it had developed a new fallacious ancient origin with the Gypsies.

I like having all of that information, but it could have been summed up in four or five short chapters, not a 300+ page opus of minutiae without flow or embedded context.


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The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, John Buescher, 2006, 368 p.

A month or so ago, at my workplace (the Center for History and New Media, at George Mason University, where I work on the National History Education Clearinghouse project), I said something to my officemate, John Buescher, about science fiction. John’s an older gentleman, whom I’d never talked to much until our department’s offices got rearranged (also about a month ago) and I ended up office-paired with him; and I was expecting to puzzle him, with my plush facehugger and my Doctor Who pictures and my general geekiness. Instead, he seems to like me—I make him laugh, frequently, and in this case, the mention of science fiction led to him lending me a copy of one of his books, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear.

Turns out, John’s written several books on spiritualism in the 19th century (and on Buddhism, as well); this one follows the life of a man who started out as a preacher and abolition and prison reformer and became an ardent, radical spiritualist, often claiming to speak, in trance, with the voices of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams. John Spear spent his entire life flying further and further off into the fringes of society, attempting to remake human nature through the creation of artificial life, the societal adoption of free love, and the rebirth of dead geniuses through the control of human reproduction and female sexuality. Meanwhile, friends spent their fortunes on grand plans that came to nothing—the creation of a perpetual motion device, the mining of treasures from lost civilizations, the establishment of utopian communities—and the general public and even fellow spiritualists lambasted him from every side.

The book gives a different view of a period of time anyone mucking about in U.S. history hears a lot about—the whole foment of political and cultural tensions leading up to the Civil War. People like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison show up in the story, but they’re not the focus—the Civil War’s barely more than a blip on Spear’s radar, concrete evidence that society as it stands is broken and needs spiritual revolution. Feminists and abolitionists flit about in the background, puzzling at John’s work or ignoring it; it’s a perspective on this time period that makes it clear that not everyone was following the steps set out in U.S. history textbooks.

It’s also a sad book, as it shows a life lived in a desperate search for meaning and for change. John and his fellow spiritualists saw significance where none existed, just as, I think, everyone does, to some degree—signs and symbols and correspondences that we create and then deem inevitable and factual because we see them. While it sounds ridiculous to have sex and ejaculate on a machine to try to imbue it with a motive force—the principal of sympathetic magic is as old as human beings. These people were trying to bring together science and religion/spiritualism into some great magic bullet, a miraculous cure-all that would raise every individual human being up into something that would be a simultaneous magnification and nullification of the self.

They were trying to gain power and meaning by giving themselves up to forces beyond the self—possession let them speak as people with authority, who inarguably had something to say, instead of as human beings, whose ideas could be criticized and tested and rejected.

They looked beyond themselves for meaning, and found nothing there and made something up to fill the void. The way we all do. But for John and his group of spiritualists the result was even more bizarre and irrational and self-contradicting than most such constructs—and, through exaggeration, points back to the absurdity of our lesser, “normal” faiths and the networks of meaning and purpose we construct for ourselves.

I’ve been reading this in conjunction with a book on the history of tarot (its evolution from a pack of playing cards to an occultist tool), the memoirs of Casanova, and a collection of essays on game design; and all of the texts reflect on each other, showing the ways in which humans struggle to make significance and meaning out of life.

Also, John (Buescher, not Spear) is apparently a lapsed-Catholic-lapsed-Buddhist-turned-Catholic-again. People have interesting lives, and you would never know about those lives by just glancing contact with them. We’re all secrets.

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